I’m posting from the road en route to Chicago O’Hare where I will be hitching an overnight flight to Taipei and then on to Tokyo. With my ass parked at a Starbucks here in frigid downtown Chi Town I had a chance to catch up with my good friend and co-worker Sara Simon.
Sara has been my Sensei for over a year now for all things Nihon. She’s schooled me in the language, the food, the beautiful people, and most importantly the infamous Yōkai….yes Yōkai. Trust me she’s a veritable scholar.
Sara (also known as 皿 “dinner-plate”) is also largely to blame for planting the seed of this crazy idea–my jaunting halfway around the globe to frolic in fields of endless Japanese powder. I had the will. She has shown me the way. And let it be known that if I go missing down some volcanic steam vent high in the Japanese Alps…you guessed it…its Sara’s fault (she winces).
I wanted to chat with Sara because the centerpiece of my two week trip finds me in Morioka–home base for my first round of back-country snowboarding. Morioka is special to Sara. She has spent some significant time there and has all sorts of great advice for making the most out of my own time there. Really appreciate her taking the time to chat with me on the fly like this! Ikimashou!
Matt: I want to hear all about Morioka but can you first just say a little bit about what drew you to Japan in the first place? Where all have you been?
Sara (皿): I always struggle to identify what originally led me to Japan. I think largely because there was no life-changing moment or long-held desire, Japan just started to interest me and I was seeking a new viewpoint. Japan is unique in that while it is heavily influenced by American culture now, for a long time they were not. So I think the draw was to experience a culture that had a different way of thinking, building and writing that had not been so colonized by the U.S. that it challenged my way of thinking and viewing the world.
As to where I have been in Japan: Sapporo, Otaru, Okinawa, Kagoshima, Sendai, Miyagi, Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Minamchita , Kyoto, Kobe, Himeji, Osaka, Shiga, Nara, Yakushima, Hachinohe, Kuji, Hatchimantai, Ofunato, and Kamaishi.
Matt: Wow! So how did you end up in Morioka and what did you spend your time doing? When were you there last?
Sara (皿): I applied to teach via a company specializing in ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers). I thought I would have a better chance of being accepted if I put no limitations on my placement preferences. So they assigned me to the city of Morioka. I always felt like I got a really lucky break with that. It is a wonderful city and second home. During the week, I planned lessons and worked at two schools; an all-girls school and agricultural school. On the weekends, I traveled to visit friends and see more of Japan. I was last there in 2009. I want to go back to see the city and how it has changed but I am also very anxious with all the changes after the tsunami (March 2011).
Matt: Yeah that is 10 years now–lots of changes I’m sure. You have said to me that I should make an effort to get to know Japan through it’s food. No complaints here! Pretty much every region and city has something unique to offer. So, what should I be going after in Morioka?
Sara (皿): Morioka is known for its noodles–so Jajamen is a must. It is thick noodles with a garlic and cucumber mix. Once you finish, there can be a second part to the meal for a dollar more, the chef will add some hot noodle broth to your bowl and crack an egg into it. You mix it all together and have a warm soup. Morika also has Reimen and Wanko Soba which can be fun outings too if you like cool summer noodles, and noodle eating contests respectively. But Jajamen was my primary experience and is Morioka to me. Also the ice cream and farm products are great in Morioka. Since the north has more farm land and dairy, it is one of the few places you really see rich dairy products pushed.
Matt: Oishii! And you have no idea how badly I am craving my first Ekiben when I hit Tokyo. But let’s stay focused! Alright, so my four days in Morioka will be spent primarily hitting the backcountry slopes outside of the city but by night I aim to come back and hit the town. What do you recommend to do and see?
Sara (皿): Karaoke, have some drinks at the izakayas in town. The train station has lots of neat shopping & food in one spot. Rotating sushi (kaiten sushi) would be fun. A sunset up on the castle ruins is a must. Also the shrines and the temples in the area are unique. Of course if there is time you should see the rock that gives Iwate its name. The legend was that a demon terrorized the area but a monk banished the demon. As the demon was sent off, he put his hand upon a rock and the hand-print was seared into the rock. Now when it rains the hand-print is visible. There is a shrine nearby commemorating the event.
Matt: I am all over that! Okay, so Morioka is the capital of Iwate and yeah you have spoken to me a lot about how amazing Iwate is. I’m sad because I won’t get much time to tour the prefecture but can you just go on a little bit more about what makes it so amazing. What will I be missing?
Sara (皿): I think for me it really reminded me of home. It was not a giant tourist trap or what people put on the postcards. It was real Japan. People farming and living and enjoying the slopes. I liked seeing the different viewpoints from the folks in the south. And much like Michigan, Iwate is rich in natural beauty. It is very easy to see it as home and not a vacation spot.
Matt: Before I catch my Shinkansen north to Hokkaido I might have some time to just wander the city. Anything else you recommend I take in?
Sara (皿): I would say just wander the city. It does not have the big tourist draws. The power of Morioka is its general down-to-earth ambience and the little treasures you trip over as you go. Just keep an eye out for the local demons–the Kappa.
Matt: Oh dear God the Kappa that’s right…lol! Well, let’s get down to important matters. You’ve tasked me with bringing back goodies from Japan! Anything special I should keep my eyes out for in Morioka?
Sara (皿): Anything from Koiwai farms. They have been around for probably 100 years and make some yummy and truly local snacks.
Matt: Subarashii! This has been great! Sara – what are you missing most about Japan these days?
Sara (皿): The food. Hiking. Practicing speaking now that I actually have more grammar under my belt.
Matt: Yeah! Yeah! You are taking Japanese language classes (and getting pretty good I might add), so what’s been the most challenging thing about learning Nihongo and also what is your favorite Japanese expression?
Sara (皿): Japanese arranges thoughts differently than English. Once I accepted that, it got a lot easier, but I had to relax my own expectations and accept the culture (and stop panicking) to get there. My favorite Japanese expression is “nama-biru onegaishimasu” – “a house beer, please”, not so much for the drinking, but because even with just a little Japanese, this can allow you to settle down with people, drink the local drink, and start a conversation. It also shows that you are willing to try with what little you can while in someone else’s relaxing grounds and get the first round.
Matt: Well said lady…I mean Sensei! Kanpai! This has been a blast. Have learned so much! When I get back we can flip the tables and I’ll let you grill me on the trip. Okay I should get rolling. Ja ne!